After the Planning Board suggested zoning changes decreasing allowable building heights from six stories to four on Bloomfield Avenue to be in line with the township’s master plan, the Township Council and its Economic Development Committee rejected them. 

Now a group of land use, housing and preservation advocates is pushing back on that rejection and plans to attend the July 26 council meeting to voice opposition.

In February, the Planning Board struggled with an application for a five-story mixed-use development proposed for Elm Street. While the master plan recommends a maximum of four stories in the area, C-1 Central Business Zone regulations allow up to six stories for apartment and office developments. 

The master plan serves as a guide to development for a municipality, while zoning rules are law. In the end, it was the developer who downsized the development to four stories after Planning Board members said the development was too dense for the area.

Planner Janice Talley, who has conceded that the master plan isn’t always consistent with zoning regulations, came up with revisions that would change the zoning requirements for the C-1 Zone — and with it, reduce the allowable height for many Bloomfield Avenue properties from six to four stories, or 47 feet. She also suggested that some properties on side streets be moved into another zone — called the C-3 Central Business Zone — and be limited to three stories.

On June 21, the council introduced, on first reading, changes to zoning regulations that include building heights and stepbacks above three stories. The ordinance does not include reducing heights on Bloomfield Avenue. But it does change the zoning in a small section of downtown on Portland Place, from Park Street to just west of Midland Avenue, from C-1 zoning with maximum heights of six stories to C-3 with a maximum height of three stories. A second reading is expected to take place on July 26.

Councilman Peter Yacobellis, who serves on the Economic Development Committee, said that the committee decided to hit the issues with a “scalpel” rather than a “sledgehammer.” He said that building heights along Bloomfield Avenue have remained similar to those in the 1950s. 

“This will ensure a maximum height for any future development in those areas [Portland Place] of three stories, or 37 feet, versus six stories as is currently permitted,” Yacobellis said, adding that he is not aware of any proposed redevelopment for the area but that it is adjacent to a residential area with two-story structures.

He said the council’s concern with new development is what is referred to as the “canyon effect,” where tall buildings block out light. That’s where the new stepbacks of 10 feet above the third story come into play, he said.

“When you dig into the height concern you find that the canyon effect comes up a lot,” he said. “So that’s why we’re going with the required setback — excluding redevelopment areas — after the third story versus reducing the height so that we generally don't end up with flat six-story facades.” 

He pointed to Valley & Bloom as a bad example of six-story development, while 2 South Willow, with its use of setbacks on upper stories, serves as a good example of not creating the canyon effect.

“Height isn’t the issue so much as making sure height is being leveraged strategically,” Yacobellis said.

But Martin Schwartz, a former Planning Board member and a proponent of “smart growth,” said that council members continue to rely on parking requirements of 1.2 spaces per each bedroom within a development to keep density, and thereby heights, down.        

"By again ignoring most of the Planning Board's already passed master plan zoning protective designations since 2018, which would reduce building heights from six to four stories in the Bloomfield area corridor and on connected side streets, this Township Council continues to demonstrate a complete lack of policy awareness and vision to help counter the detrimental impacts of overdevelopment," Schwartz said. 

"Developers will continue to find ways to assemble building lots in our downtown that get around those parking statutes that council members believe can limit heights.”

David Greenbaum, a former commissioner of the township Historic Preservation Commission, said that residents and visitors walking downtown want to see sun-and-open-sky views, while enjoying Montclair’s architectural charm.  

“The south side/north-facing buildings of Bloomfield Avenue above a certain height will entirely block light and air shading Bloomfield Avenue’s pedestrian and vehicular corridor from the early fall to late spring, much like the Valley & Bloom and MC Hotel do,” Greenbaum said.

It’s not the first time the Planning Board has sought zoning changes to align with the master plan. In 2018, the council declined to vote through Planning Board recommendations that would have changed the maximum height for buildings along Bloomfield Avenue to four stories, concerned with the potential for lawsuits by developers who could lose up to a third of their build-out potential by losing the ability to add another two floors.

At the time, then-Mayor Robert Jackson said that even with the zoning allowing for up to six stories, most buildings along Bloomfield Avenue are under four, and that with other limits under the zoning — a maximum of 55 units per acre as well as a requirement of on-site parking spaces — six-story development would be almost impossible anyway.

But projects have risen six to eight stories within designated redevelopment areas, where the Township Council decides on maximum building heights and densities.

The Seymour Street project on Bloomfield Avenue and Seymour Street consists of two buildings. One is six stories tall, and the other is seven stories.

Other developments just off Bloomfield Avenue of six to eight stories include the Montclairion at 125 Bloomfield Ave., the MC Hotel on the corner of Bloomfield and Orange Road, The Siena condos on Union Street, The Siena apartments on South Park Street and the Valley & Bloom development.

In August 2017, Montclair developer Steven Plofker won approval to transform the site of the former Diva Lounge and a back lot into a combination retail and multifamily development, with a six-story building at the rear of the property on Glenridge Avenue for apartments. Because the property is one contiguous lot, the project was approved at six stories.